Normal Education – Historically Speaking

When I was a new teacher, I dismissed America’s poor showing in international comparisons of schools performance.  We all knew those foreign exchange students were a couple of years ahead of us, but I figured, ‘We’re Americans and we’re doing just fine.’  But a year later when I read “Little House on the Prairie” to my 4th grade students I saw American education from a different perspective.  I saw a lot of things from a different perspective.  Those people were tough.  We are not like them at all.  I saw that a young sixteen-year old Laura Ingall, who just graduated from her one room schoolhouse and was now the teacher, was far better educated than me.  Never mind that I did pretty well in school, was half-way to a master’s degree, was 30 years old, and didn’t live with one foot in the stone-age.  I also realized that the normal education that I thought was quite satisfactory for Americans was not normal, at least not historically.

C.S. Lewis says that we must read old books because every era in history has its blind spots.  Those who point fingers at our Founding Father’s slaveholding should consider that those generations could probably point out some serious issues for our generation.  Witnesses to a serious accident often have widely varying accounts because they saw the accident from varying perspectives, but the sum of their testimonies can yield something close to the truth.  Lewis says if we want to have a greater grasp on the truth we need to look to the past to get different perspectives.  My encounter with Laura Ingalls showed me that my own perspective of education was rather skewed; what seems a normal education in these modern times seems quite lacking from a historical perspective.

Thus began my search for understanding of a normal education from our past and frankly it’s shocking.  I’ll share more in future posts, but here are some observations from a 1910 Harvard Press book I recently started reading titled “Grammar Schools Before and After the Reformation.”  School was six days a week, with what seems to be only five days for holidays in the year.  During the summer, hours increased to ten a day because of the additional sun light.  By the time students reached grade four they were no longer allowed to use English; not in the classroom, not on the playground – it was Latin Solus.

Why fourth graders should be fluent speakers of Latin is for another day, another post; but one other observation from this little book.  Students were not locked together by age.  Every quarter they could test to go up to the next grade.  In fact you didn’t advance to the next grade until you were ready.  From all my research, the idea of gathering a bunch of five-year olds together and forcing them through the same curriculum, at the same pace, for the next many years, never mind their abilities, was unheard of until the late 19th century.  Age-grouping is not normal historically.  It is entirely modern, and by the way, brought to you the nation’s business leaders seeking a compliant workforce that would not think too much or dream too big.  There was an “excess of entrepreneurial spirit” among the working class that needed to be dealt with.

Early on in my search through history for some perspectives on history I discovered a friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien named Dorothy Sayers and her 1947 Oxford speech on the demise of education and detailed description of what education once looked like.  I found out a few months later that I was not the only one aware of Miss Sayers speech.  The Association of Classical and Christian Schools was about ten years old by that time with about fifty schools involved.  ACCS has done a great amount of work recovering the lost tools of learning (the title of Miss Sayers’ Speech).  They have developed curricula and pedagogy that would have been quite acceptable to our forefathers, but they have missed this key point that just seems to pop up again and again.  Students should not be age-grouped.  They should not be force-marched at the exact same pace, through the exact same curriculum for thirteen of their most impressionable years.  This does not foster independence or creativity.  The frustrations caused by age-grouping doesn’t do anything to encourage the life long learning that our schools claim as a goal.  Age-grouping creates a lot of other problems (see the menu at the top of the website), but the One Room Schoolhouse recreates an environment that will foster (require) independent learning, creativity, and academic excellence.


About Stephen Wilkins

I am a Christian, husband, father, educator, reader, amateur chef, etc.
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